For years, seeing Agnes Martin’s celebrated paintings required a pilgrimage. In the mid-1970s, a visit to Martin’s home and studio on a remote mesa in Cuba, New Mexico was not for the faint of heart: Martin could often be seen barreling across arroyos in her pick-up, rescuing lost visitors. Over time, the difficulty of seeing Martin and her paintings became part of the appeal of her work. Martin’s drawings, paintings and prints could increasingly be seen in museums in the United States and Europe, but she remained an “artist’s artist” and her critical reputation eclipsed her popular renown. For many fans of Martin’s work, including Terry Castle, who wrote of her own pilgrimage to see Martin’s paintings in Taos, Martin’s “semi-obscurity [wa]s sort of the point.”
No longer. Thanks to a recent spate of books, exhibitions, and magazine articles, Martin is finally having her moment. A long-overdue retrospective of Martin’s work, co-curated by Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell, closes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on September 11th and opens at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York on October 7th. The first traveling retrospective of Martin’s work since 1992/1993, the exhibition is part of a critical re-evaluation of Martin’s work and her legacy within the history of art. Indeed, three museums currently have entire rooms devoted to Martin’s paintings—the Harwood Museum; DIA:Beacon; and, most recently, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
For those of us who have studied Martin’s work for years, all the fuss is a welcome change. I first encountered Martin’s work in a museum’s storage room, and was struck by the care with which Martin marshaled her artistic materials to create a drawing of uncommon power and sensitivity. Who was this artist? Why wasn’t she a household name? Why was her work in storage? It certainly wasn’t a question of quality. Martin was notoriously ambivalent with regard to her views on gender and sexuality, though there is no doubt that both worked against her in the art market. And while Martin often resisted large-scale exhibitions—for years, she declined to have an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art because she did not want a scholarly catalog produced—she was surprisingly savvy in the promotion of her art. To attract the notice of the New York dealer Betty Parsons in the late 1950s, for example, Martin rented an abandoned storefront outside of Taos and put up an exhibition of her own work—a solo show to compete with the best of them.
Drawing the Line: The Early Work of Agnes Martin uncovers the ambition, determination and grit that characterized Martin’s rapid creative evolution, arguing that the germs of Martin’s artistic success can be found in her early work. It’s essential reading for anyone who visits the retrospective, and proves a useful companion for visitors who spend time with her paintings in museums across the globe. If seeing Martin’s art no longer requires a four-wheel drive vehicle, the rewards are no less spectacular.
Christina Bryan Rosenberger is an art historian living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a contributor to Tate Modern’s 2015 exhibition catalogue Agnes Martin and recently wrote on Martin’s 1978 film Gabriel for Artforum. She has taught modern art at the University of New Mexico and has served as Research Coordinator for the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard Art Museums.